NZ-connected case leads to landmark UN ruling on climate-change refugees

Despite the claim failing, the UN has left the door open for similar cases in the future

NZ-connected case leads to landmark UN ruling on climate-change refugees

A case connected to a deportation from New Zealand has led to a landmark ruling by the UN.

The UN Human Rights Committee has ruled that governments cannot force refugees urgently fleeing devastation wrought by climate change to return home without considering the impact of climate change on those countries of origin.

While the claim itself was unsuccessful, the decision “sets a global precedent,” said Kate Scheutze, Amnesty International Pacific Researcher.

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“It says a state will be in breach of its human rights obligations if it returns someone to a country where – due to the climate crisis – their life is at risk, or in danger of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment triggered,” Scheutze said.

The claim was brought by Kiribati man Ioane Teitiota before the UN. He claimed that rising sea levels caused by global warming had caused his island home of South Tarawa to be overcrowded, leading to him facing a housing crisis and land disputes that have caused several fatalities.

Teitiota sought protection in New Zealand in 2013 but the Immigration and Protection Tribunal denied his application. His appeals at the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court also failed and he was deported in 2015.

The authorities and courts of New Zealand recognised that Kiribati did face challenges brought about by climate change and that international human rights obligations must be interpreted broadly. However, they also found that if Teitiota were returned to the country, he would not face a situation so precarious that his or his family’s life would be in danger.

While the UN committee did agree that Teitiota’s life was not in immediate danger, thereby leading to his claim failing, it did note that “severe environmental degradation can adversely affect an individual’s well-being and lead to a violation of the right to life.”

It said that countries planning to send back claimants whose asylum applications had failed must consider the effects of climate change on the claimants’ home countries. Otherwise, the deporting countries could be found in breach of obligations to honour the right to life.

“The message is clear: Pacific Island states do not need to be under water before triggering human rights obligations to protect the right to life,” said Schuetze. 

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